MercerMe has been getting all hyper-local on the Hopewell Valley School District declining enrollment issue (reporting on the initial meetings, squashing rumors and generally spreading the word about what’s going on and when it’s going on).   Wednesday night was the first “public” meeting of the committee when the group got a visit from Mercer County’s Tax Administrator for some background information on how tax levies are apportioned across municipalities in regional school districts.

If you were not one of the roughly 5 members of the public there who are not 1) on the committee, 2) working for the school district or 3) working for our County Tax Administrator – I’ll save you some time and point you to a story I wrote a few weeks back on equalization ratios and property tax assessments.  You might find it riveting if you, like myself, enjoyed spending Wednesday morning at the Justice Complex in Trenton appearing before the Tax Court – otherwise you might find it decidedly not riveting.  It’s a painfully acquired taste… but important none the less.

After the presentation from the County Tax Administrator, Superintendent Tom Smith went through the District’s budgeting process and how where where the roughly $70MM each year goes.  Interestingly, at the end of that presentation the focus was on how little of the overall funding is spent on each physical building (i.e., energy, building supplies and maintenance of grounds) – and that there would be “not a big savings” in closing a school.  Contrary to the early rumors, that doesn’t sound to me like a group that is predisposed to close a school – quite the opposite, it sounds like there’s a pre-disposition not to mothball anything.

I was surprised that the meeting was more of a presentation than a discussion – though I have to assume that as the group moves forward it will necessarily become less absorption of background info and more deliberation.  We’ll have to wait and see (or read afterwards, since most of the meetings won’t ben open to the public).

Another interesting note – the meeting ended with a mention of the “6 scenarios” that will be reviewed and discussed by the committee.  If you weren’t invited to the prior meetings, minutes from the first two (March 5 and February 19) are now online – none of which mention any scenarios yet.

Go read the minutes for yourself, but some highlights include:

  • At the February meeting, the committee decided that the meetings should not be public, unless an outside expert was in attendance (based on Wednesday’s completely underwhelming attendance – this likely not driven by space considerations).
  • At the March meeting, it was clarified that the committee was set up to advise the superintendent, not the School Board, and was therefore open or closed to the public at the discretion of the committee or the superintendent’s.  You can read up on New Jersey’s Sunshine Law here if that doesn’t quite sit right with you.
  • The committee agreed upon a charter or sorts – requiring 3/4 of the members for a quorum and 2/3 for a majority to act, and allowing the teacher / district members of the committee to vote (raising the count to 40).
  • Committee members can participate occasionally over the internet rather than in person, but not by proxy (i.e., they have to personally vote).
  • The problems of declining enrollment and the 2% state budget/spending cap where discussed, along with ideas for future meetings.

Future meetings of the Future Planning Committee will involve visits from local realtors, the Hopewell Township Administrator, demographers, and even include field trips to see how other districts do things.  Meetings that feature outside speakers will likely be open to the public.  The next meeting will be on the 16th of April – 7:00pm at the HVRSD Administration Building.  I’m told that one will probably be open to the public as well.  See you then!